We’re approaching Samhain (pronounced sah-win), the most sacred day of the year for Pagans – Halloween, to the uninitiated. For the benefit of readers who aren’t card-carrying Wiccans, I’ll pause to celebrate the occasion and explain it. This isn’t just an opportunity for Pagans to dress up and look daringly unchristian – though it is that – it’s the time when people are least preoccupied with physical activity, and most able to mingle with beings from another plane of existence.
All the Pagan holy-days denote stages in the cycle of the seasons, and this is no exception. Samhain marks the half-way point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice – that is, the Sun now enters the region of His yearly path that’s furthest from our part of the Earth. For the next three months, His light and His warmth will be at lowest ebb. Our life force, which He sustains, becomes muted and subdued. It’s a period for quiescence, retrenchment, and taking stock. Winter’s cold, the precursor of death’s deeper cold, intrudes on our consciousness.
That sounds kind of gloomy, yet there are compensations. Our psychic senses, no longer dazzled by solar glare or confused by the restless energy of abundant life, are more attuned to the subtle spiritual currents that flow through us. We detect the presence of other-worldly entities – which we personalize as fairies and gnomes, angels and demons, and when they’re really impressive, Goddesses and Gods. Whether these beings are friendly or hostile or a little of both, they’re uncanny and alien. We pay them no mind at other times of the year, but now they can’t be ignored.
It’s no wonder that for the wider culture – uninstructed in Pagan lore – this date evokes feelings of fright and dread, which have to be purged by reveling in them. It’s also an occasion for partying, which likewise reassures.
Maybe most importantly, on Samhain the barrier that separates the living from the dead comes closest to being dissolved. Popular Halloween imagery conspicuously features fearful symbols of death – zombies, mummies, skeletons, ghouls, ghosts, and other ghastly presences – who sometimes seem to approach us and to want something from us. Pagans acknowledge the pervasive presence of the dead – who in truth never leave the living – but we don’t find them so terrifying. It isn’t good to disrespect them, yet they generally mean us no harm.
If you yearn to communicate with the shades of your ancestors, or your friends who’ve passed, or historical figures who’ve inspired you, now is the time. In fact, you may sense these specters pressing in on you, unbidden. They’re as eager to speak with the living as we are to speak with them – more eager, maybe.
Solon, the Athenian sage, told an annoyed Croesus, King of Lydia, that a person can’t be said to have had a fortunate life until the manner of death is known – meaning that since the King wasn’t dead yet, he couldn’t be called truly happy. Croesus scoffed, but his finale was less triumphant than he expected, and Solon’s observation became a commonplace of Pagan wisdom. And if our happiness depends to any degree on the future success of our progeny, or our ideals, none of us can be entirely sure, even at the very moment of death, that we haven’t lived in vain. The full measure of one’s felicity may not be clear until one has been dead for a while – a very long while, perhaps. The departed, especially the recently departed, are yet invested in the affairs of the living, and will wish to stay in contact with warm-bodied souls.
From our late elders and friends, who’ve now attained a vantage point closer to the eternal verities, we may expect to receive encouragement and trustworthy advice as we blunder through the trackless swamps of our lives. From us, spirits of the deceased gain reassurance that they’re still loved, and that their influence on the world didn’t end when their physical frame gave out.
I’m a bookish sort of person, and I see Samhain as a time to reconnect with the great writers who’ve most influenced me. They’ve generally been dead for many years: the famous, like Homer and Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt, and the not-so-famous (at least today), like Hendrik Van Loon. I re-read their best passages, and I even politely question them, requesting explanations and justifications – which they cheerfully and patiently supply. I think of my mother and grandmother, and we converse, and come to a level of mutual understanding we never achieved before.
Samhain isn’t just for contacting the dear departed. It’s also a good occasion for scrying, for spell-casting, for group rituals that create a feeling of community – in short, for any operation requiring entre into the spiritual realm. It’s especially the time when we Pagans feel the love of the Lord and the Lady most strongly in our hearts, and want to be with those who share our view of the world.
Here and here are some other articles regarding Samhain, and here’s a discussion of Día de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – which, despite the article’s headline, is in fact the Hispanic/Mexican celebration of the same seasonally-based spiritual ambiance that also inspires Samhain and Halloween.
Ghosts and sprites really do start to flit about as the Sun fades and nights become longer, as many traditions recognize.
So far, I’ve been posting on this blog on Mondays and Thursdays, but for the time being I’m going to cut back to just once a week — my teaching schedule just got a bit heavier. So for the next two months, I’ll be posting only on Mondays. I’ll have something provocative for you next week.
# # #